A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Fresno alleges that a now-defunct Madera food company allowed managers to sexually harass female employees and discriminated against other workers who objected to the abuse.
The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is suing Zoria Farms and Z Foods, operators of a dried-fruit processing plant that closed in 2011, on behalf of at least four female workers who said they were sexually harassed, and other employees who say they were targets of retaliation and discrimination dating back to 2007.
Both Zoria Farms, which owned and operated the plant until 2008, and Z Foods, which bought the plant in 2008, are out of business. But EEOC attorney Rumie Vuong said that in general insurance policies or money from the sale of a company's assets can be sought on behalf of victims.
She added that Z Foods is still incorporated as a company. "We think this is a very strong case and that we will be able to obtain substantial relief for victims," Vuong said.
According to information from the California Secretary of State, Z Foods Inc. remains an active corporation with its articles of incorporation filed in Delaware.
The lawsuit in the U.S. District Court states that a dried fruit supervisor at the plant began harassing one of the women by "hugging her from behind, grabbing her buttocks, rubbing her arm, following her, telling her that she was pretty and making comments about her physical appearance." The suit alleges that the supervisor offered the woman a better job in exchange for sex.
The lawsuit states that the company took no action even after the woman complained to the company's personnel manager, and that the supervisor did the same thing to several other women.
Other employees complained about the supervisor's treatment of women in an April 2008 meeting with managers; the lawsuit says those employees were victims of retaliation by being passed over for rehiring after Z Foods bought the plant in June 2008.
Starting in 2008, a fresh fruit supervisor at the plant began sexually harassing other female employees, threatening the women that "their continued employment ... would be dependent on them acquiescing to his advances." The company allegedly took no action against the supervisor after the women reported the abuse, and retaliated against other workers who complained about the supervisor.
Vuong said the EEOC can take action only against employers, and not against the individual supervisors.
"One reason we believe so strongly in this case is because the problem of sexual harassment, especially in the agricultural industry, is so prevalent," Vuong added.
Wednesday's lawsuit came only after "a somewhat lengthy process" in which EEOC notified Zoria Farms and Z Foods that it discovered evidence of discrimination "and tried in good faith to resolve the differences before filing suit."
San Jose-based Zoria Farms built the plant on Road 29 1/2 southeast of Madera in the 1990s to dry and process cherries, apricots, peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, apples and raisins grown by Zoria's farming operations. After Z Foods bought the plant in 2008, it purchased fruit from outside growers to dry and process primarily as ingredients for the commercial baking and food-service industries.
The plant employed about 100 workers on a year-round basis, and as many as 400 workers during the peak fruit-drying season. Z Foods began making layoffs and shutting down operations in August 2011.
Avant Partners Inc., a company with an address in Playa Del Rey, bought the 18.8-acre plant property in July 2012.
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